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Under the influence

by Dominic Green

Posted: Dec 01, 2015 02:00 PM

John Deakin in his cups and minus his shirt, photographed by Daniel Farson


Editor's Note: In the December issue of The New Criterion, Dominic Green reviews Tate Britain's Frank Auerbach retrospective. In his review, Green discusses John Deakin’s iconic 1963 photograph of the incipient “School of London”: Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, Michael Andrews, and Timothy Behrens at Wheeler’s Restaurant in London’s Soho. This photograph appears in Under the Influence: John Deakin, Photography, and the Lure of Soho, edited by Robin Muir, a recent collection of Deakin’s Soho photographs from the 1950s and 1960s, some previously unpublished.1 All images from aforementioned book. 


At Wheeler’s, in 1963: (Left to right) Behrens, Freud, Bacon, Auerbach, Andrews.

John Deakin (1912–72) was a legend in the style of postwar Soho: brilliantly original, reliably nonconformist, and belligerently self-destructive. After learning on the job as a British Army photographer at the Battle of El Alamein, he became a fashion photographer—he was fired twice from Vogue, for alcohol-induced misdemeanors—and a freelance street photographer. Deakin produced only one small exhibition, John Deakin’s Paris (1956), and two books, London Today (1949) and Rome Alive (1951). In the Fifties and Sixties, perhaps fearing success more than failure, he turned from photography to painting, and then sculpture and collage. He continued to take photographs, though, notably for Francis Bacon, who preferred to paint from photographic images rather than from life, and esteemed the candor and composition of Deakin’s images.

Bacon used Deakin’s photographs as material for portraits of Muriel Belcher, the famously foul-mouthed proprietress of the Colony Room on Dean Street; George Dyer, the sharply dressed but incompetent petty thief who was Bacon’s boyfriend; Lucian Freud, who painted Deakin’s portrait in 1963; Isabel Rawsthorne, a painter, and the erstwhile muse of Epstein, Derain, and Giacometti; and Bacon’s friend and model Henrietta Moraes, who disliked the brutally intrusive nude photographs that Bacon commissioned from Deakin—photographs that Bacon reworked for Portrait of Henrietta Moraes (1963).


Francis Bacon, photographed by Deakin for Vogue in 1952, between two sides of meat like Bacon’s screaming pope.

Moraes later called Deakin a “horrible little man.” The jazz singer and Surrealist connoisseur George Melly called him “an evil genius.” As Robin Muir reports in Under the Influence, Deakin had the gait of a midget wrestler, the careworn, comical face of a hapless clown, and a boozer’s tongue that Daniel Farson described as being stained the color of aubergine, and the poet Celia Osborne compared to a metal file. The Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton, who had an unspecified misunderstanding with Deakin in Tangier, called him the “second nastiest little man I have ever met.” Muir writes that when word of Hutton’s assessment filtered back to London, Deakin’s acquaintances were “astonished only that there could have been someone nastier.”

Deakin died in 1972, while recuperating from an operation for lung cancer. His small top-floor flat in Berwick Street was packed with photographs, as well as layouts for books that never found a publisher. He named Francis Bacon as his next of kin. “It was the last dirty trick he played on me,” Bacon said.


Deakin in a contact sheet of self-portraits. He was mercurial, usually drunk, and frequently unpleasant.

Posterity has played further tricks on Deakin, none of them nasty. In 1984, his friend Bruce Bernard curated “The Salvage of a Photographer,” an exhibition of photographs from Berwick Street, at the Victoria & Albert Museum. When Bacon died, Deakin’s paint-spattered photographs were discovered among the detritus of Bacon’s studio when it was transferred to the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin. And Robin Muir has returned Deakin to print, in the career retrospective Photographs (1996), the street photography collection A Maverick Eye (2002), and now Under the Influence, which focuses on Deakin in Soho.


Francis Bacon, before the reflecting window of a Soho wine shop.

Bacon called Deakin the best portrait photographer since Nadar and Julia Margaret Cameron. Deakin’s Soho portraits are remorselessly direct, exposing personality in all its vulnerability, but they are not heartless. Colin MacInnes observed that the beauty of Deakin’s Paris portraiture lies in “the fund of affection, and at times of pity” that Deakin, for all his legendary nastiness, expresses and responds to in his subjects. The dreams and struggles of Soho’s brawny-armed transvestites, stripe-shirted Italian waiters, smartly tailored thugs, shabby alcoholics, and suffering poets are laid bare without condescension or sentimentality. Like Brassai’s Parisians, many of Deakin’s subjects are what MacInnes called “creatures crushed by life,” though Deakin, unlike Brassai, posed them, as in the painters’ group at Wheeler’s.


Frank Auerbach, Soho, 1960s.

Deakin photographed painters with the same harsh honesty, but these portraits are different. The painters may sense the crush of life—Bacon looks puffy and seedy, Freud demonically furtive, and Auerbach slightly hunted—but as visual artists, they are peers as well as victims of the lens. They look back at Deakin with an appraising eye, artist to artist, intimate to rival. As Deakin understated about Bacon, “He’s an odd one, wonderfully tender and generous by nature, yet with curious streaks of cruelty, especially to his friends.”


Lucien Freud: Deakin called him "a strange, fox-like person."

1 Under the Influence: John Deakin, Photography and the Lure of Soho, edited by Robin Muir; Art / Books, 176 pages, $50.


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The Critic's Notebook for November 30, 2015

by Benjamin Riley

Posted: Dec 01, 2015 09:39 AM

Jane Freilicher, Flowers and Pine Trees, 1983. Oil on linen, 33 x 41 inches. Collection of Jim Tarica.


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This week: Salman Rushdie, Seamus Heaney, and Schubert, Strauss, and Schack.

FictionLászló Krasznahorkai and Salman Rushdie, with Valeria Luiselli, at the 92nd Street Y (December 14): Two weeks from today offers a rare chance to hear two Man Booker Prize-winning authors on the same night. On December 14, the 92nd Street Y brings together Salman Rushdie, who won the Booker in 1981 for Midnight’s Children, and who has been shortlisted three other times, and László Krasznahorkai, the Hungarian writer best known for his bleak, apocalyptic fiction, who received the 2015 Man Booker International Prize. Rushdie will read from his latest novel, Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, while Krasznahorkai will read from a new collection of nonfiction titled Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens: Reportage. After the readings the authors will be led in discussion by Valeria Luiselli, whose latest novel is The Story of My Teeth. Fans and followers of contemporary literature should be sure to purchase their tickets now, as the event is likely to sell out. —BR

Nonfiction: The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews Under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain, by Darío Fernández-Morera (Intercollegiate Studies Institute): “Islam,” said Barack Obama in his notorious speech at Cairo in 2009, "has a proud tradition of tolerance. We see it in the history of Andalusia.” In his forthcoming book The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews Under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain, Darío Fernández-Morera, who teaches at Northwestern University, shows in meticulous detail just how preposterous the story Barack Obama repeated is. In fact, in Andalusia, as in every place where the phrase “under Islamic rule” pertains, intolerance, segregation, formal inequality, and brutality were the order of the day. Jews and Christians, Fernández-Morera shows, were second-class citizens in Spain, subject to the arbitrary and tyrannical whim of their Muslim conquerors for whom there was no disitinction between religious and civil law: sharia, Islam law, ruled all aspects of daily life. Fernández-Morera also shows that “the oft-repeated assertion” that Islam preserved and transmitted forgotten classical knowledge from Aristotle and other Greek thinkers “is baseless.” “Ancient Greek texts and Greek culture,” he points out, “were never ‘lost’ to be somehow ‘recovered.’” You cannot read far into the academic literature on Muslim-controlled Spain without encountering the assertion that it represented “a golden age” of “enlightened rule” under the Umayyad dynasty in the latter half of the eighth century. Fernández-Morera shows that, on the contrary, “of all the dynasties of Islamic Spain," the Umayyads were the cruelest and most energetic in their persecution of non-Muslims. Inquisitions, beheadings, impalings, and crucifixions were rife, as were expropriations and the destruction of churches and synagogues. In a passage that might have been drawn from today’s news reports about the activities of ISIS, one scholar that Fernández-Morera quotes notes that the Muslim rulers of Andalusia “carried out indiscriminate beheading of prisoners of war.” Furthermore, in another passage that might be drawn from today’s headlines, we read that the Umayyad rulers “imposed brutal punishments on the dhimmis [i.e., the non-Muslims] who dared to openly proclaim their religious beliefs.” It was ever thus. The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise is a useful corrective to the emetic tripe about Islam being a “religion of peace” and “jihad” being essentially an effort of self-perfection that one hears endlessly repeated by people who should know better. —RK

Poetry: Field Work, by Seamus Heaney (FSG Classics): From his country cottage in County Wicklow, Seamus Heaney produced the poems found in Field Work, which steer away from Irish politics into elegant ruminations on time and place as they occur to him through natural landscape. As Heaney undulates between observations of external setting into contemplations of internal reflection, he demonstrates the interconnectedness between person and place, past and present. In poems like "Oyster," Heaney establishes a current sense of the present, draws us back into the past by referencing the Roman Empire, then eventually resolves by addressing time's inevitable passing. Though the back and forth may seem superfluous, each leap is effortless, mimicking Heaney's attachment to his physical setting while crossing time and space with such precision that the shifts occur seamlessly, nearly undetected. Though many poets spend decades trying to master this fluidity, Heaney's most powerful moments occur in lines like, "the sunset blaze/ of straw on blackened stubble/ a thatch-deep, freshening/ barbarous crimson burn/ I rode down England/ as they fired the crop," in which natural observations lead him into deeper thought. When Heaney submits to these reflections, the results are connections joined together through dazzling visual imagery and powerful poems that demonstrate the inseparability of person and place, the metaphorical and the real. By linking the physical world with ourselves, Heaney allows sunset's glow, a metaphor for time's decay, to evoke a present sense of heat, a cognizance of fire, that leaves us standing in "hot soot/ a breaking sheaf of light.” —ID

Art: "Jane Freilicher and Jane Wilson: Seen and Unseen," (Through January 18, 2016): It might be said that Jane Freilicher and Jane Wilson were something of artistic parallels. The two Janes were born just months apart in 1924. They rocketed through the firmament of Abstract Expressionism to arrive at a new form of representation. They were inspired by the New York School of poets and the landscapes of the East End of Long Island. And they both recently passed away, months apart, at age ninety. Their friendship and their distinctive visions are now on view at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, New York in "Jane Freilicher and Jane Wilson: Seen and Unseen," with Freilicher's grounded elegies now paired with Wilson's skyward embrace. —JP

Music: Diana Damrau and Craig Rutenberg, at Carnegie Hall (December 6): Though vocal recitals seem to be in decline in America's musical life, Carnegie Hall continues to hold the torch high, presenting robust programs with talented singers, whether world-famous or just starting their careers. This Sunday's program in the main auditorium will feature Diana Damrau, one of the most important artists onstage today, who has excelled in repertoire from Mozart to Massenet. Her Sunday program with Craig Rutenberg will feature a trove of beloved art songs: "Ständchen" (both the Schubert/Rellstab and the Strauss/Schack), Strauss's "Wiegenlied," Poulenc's Fiançailles, and many more. The one that catches my eye most of all is Schubert's "Gretchen am Spinnrade," the lied that put art song on the map as a form to be taken seriously alongside the sonata, the quartet, and other small-ensemble configurations. With its wailing melody and ghostly arabesque accompaniment, "Gretchen" is the sort of musical work that haunts the soul for days after a hearing. The thought of Damrau bringing her superior interpretive powers to this work is thrilling. —ECS

From the archive: Heaney's ghosts, by William Logan: A review of Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney.

From our latest issue: The intolerable dream, by Gary Saul Morson: On the four-hundredth anniversary of Don Quixote.


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Roaring beauty

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: Nov 25, 2015 12:10 PM

Daniil Trifonov last night/Photo Courtesy: The New York Philharmonic; Credit: Chris Lee

Under Lorin Maazel, the New York Philharmonic staged a Beethoven festival. Then they staged a Tchaikovsky festival. Some people blew a gasket. Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, those stuffy old dudes! What is this, 1895? Get with the program, fogeys! Wake up and smell the Birtwistle!

Even worse than a Tchaikovsky festival, in this mindset, is a Rachmaninoff festival—which the Philharmonic has been staging in recent days. Good for them. Dare to be square!

Last night, Daniil Trifonov played Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor (the fabled, fearsome “Rach 3”). He is a Russian, age twenty-four. Guest-conducting the Philharmonic was Ludovic Morlot, a Frenchman who is the music director of the Seattle Symphony.

When I was young, I knew a woman who had heard Rachmaninoff play many times. She got a faraway look in her eye when she recalled his playing of the opening of his Third Concerto: those simple-seeming unison notes. No one did them like he, she said.

Trifonov did them well enough. The notes were nicely together—but they did not quite sing or carry.

The young man, of course, was fabulous—just fabulous. He is full of musicality, and full of love for the composer, Rachmaninoff. Plus, he has “technique to burn,” as they say. There is no tightness in his arms or hands. There is nothing to block him. He is playing with wet spaghetti rather than muscle or nerve.

“But technique isn’t everything!” people say. True. Musicality is lord, and technique must be the servant of musicality. But technique is not nothing. If you want to play this concerto, for example, you’d better have some. You’d better have a lot.

“But everyone has technique these days!” people object. “There’s nothing special about it now. No one’s like Cortot. Virtuosic technique is de rigueur.” Um, no. Technical ability is almost as unevenly distributed as musical ability.

You’ve heard the expression “time is of the essence.” Speed is of the essence in the D-minor concerto. If you can’t play it up to tempo—with clarity and ease—you should not play it at all.

If I could fault Trifonov for one thing, it would be this: he does not make the big, round, lush sound that is often required for Rachmaninoff. A masculine, virile sound, deep into the keys. At least he didn’t last night. The pianist’s sound was at times a bit surfacey.

Sections of the score that are intricate and lacey were absolutely superb. Sections that require a bit more heft were less superb.

The Philharmonic, too, was lacking in the sound department. Their sound was somewhat dry. Generations ago, the Philadelphia Orchestra was the “Rachmaninoff orchestra.” A little syrup is desirable in this music. At least some plushness, and a glow.

In the Third Piano Concerto, the French horn is a major solo instrument, and the Philharmonic’s was powerful. Though not so pliant or pretty. The flute is a minor solo instrument, but the Philharmonic’s was pure, beautiful, and right.

Maestro Morlot knew what he was doing, and the orchestra and soloist were for the most part together. The final notes of the first movement, however, were not together—which was wince-making.

And let me give you a footnote about this first movement: Trifonov played a cadenza that is seldom essayed. As the evening’s program notes explained, it is an alternative that Rachmaninoff provided, longer than his standard. And it is, of course, magnificent. And Trifonov played it magnificently. He played it with roaring beauty.

About the rest of the concerto, I will say little. An audience member could sit back and enjoy the pianist’s musical and technical ability. I will single out a moment in the third movement: a sweet little glissando—rare, and smile-making.

After the concerto, the audience roared, as Trifonov had roared on the piano. He gave them an encore: a little comedown, or cooldown, or calmdown. It was one of Medtner’s Fairy Tales, and, in Trifonov’s hands, it was simple, correct, and fond. It cleared Rachmaninoff’s stormy air, so to speak.

Another footnote: Trifonov seems to be an exceptionally polite young man—even courtly. He takes care to bow to the orchestra.

For generations now, we have heard about “The Last Romantic.” There is always a Last Romantic. And there is, of course, never a Last Romantic, because the Romantics keep coming. Trifonov is one, and he is a good friend to Rachmaninoff. Who is a good friend to us all.


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The Critic's Notebook for November 23, 2015

by Benjamin Riley

Posted: Nov 24, 2015 10:00 AM

Katherine Bradford, Glo Boat Group Swim, 2015


 Sign up to receive “Critic's Notebook” in your inbox every week—it only takes a few seconds and it's completely free! “Critic's Notebook” is a weekly preview of the best to read, see, and hear in New York and beyond, compiled by the editors of The New Criterion.


This week: The Complete Wodehouse, The Third Piano Concerto, and The Fight for France.

FictionThe Complete Wodehouse, by P. G. Wodehouse (Overlook): “Have you ever been hit by a car? If not, don’t. There’s nothing in it.” So wrote P. G. Wodehouse in 1923 to his old school friend and frequent correspondent William Townend. It’s a brilliant display of that typically Wodehousian wit: dry, slightly madcap, and playful. Have you ever read all of Wodehouse? If not, do. There’s something in it. And now readers have the chance to read Wodehouse in full. What began in the year 2000 as a collaborative effort between the Everyman Library and Overlook Press has culminated in the entirety of Wodehouse’s oeuvre being now available in handsome collectible editions, available for $20 each. If one has $1,400 to spare he could do worse than to order the complete set of ninety-nine novels. If that’s not enough enticement, note that order of a full set comes with an attendant 30 percent discount. Right ho! —BR

Nonfiction: Agincourt: The Fight for France, by Ranulph Fiennes (Pegasus): What would you say is the most important battle in English history? Hastings? Waterloo? El Alamein? The way Sir Ranulph Fiennes tells it, the answer may in fact be Agincourt. This momentous win for the English over a larger French army during the Hundred Years’ War drastically altered Henry V’s legacy, changed the relationship between England and France, and, of course, inspired Shakespeare’s famous play about the King. On the six-hundredth anniversary, Fiennes looks back to the battle that his ancestors participated in (on both sides), detailing both the events leading up to and the spectacle of the fight. Look for a review of Agincourt by Jeremy Black in a forthcoming issue of The New Criterion. —RH

Art: "Intimacy in Discourse: Reasonable Sized and Unreasonable Sized Paintings,” at Mana Contemporary and SVA Gallery (November 21–December 22): What should Phong Bui be most well known for? Is it as the co-founder, editor-in-chief, and publisher of the indispensable art newspaper The Brooklyn Rail? Is it as an artist of portraiture, collage, and books? In fact, an argument could be made that Bui's work as a curator deserves the greatest attention. Two years ago, "Come Together: Surviving Sandy," his omnium-gatherum celebration of artists recovering from Hurricane Sandy at Brooklyn's Industry City, was one of the most affecting exhibitions of the last decade. Now through December 22, Bui presents his latest exhibition project: a two-part meditation on scale, with “Unreasonable Sized Paintings”—a group show of artists working in intimate sizes—at the School of Visual Arts’ Chelsea Gallery; and “Reasonable Sized Paintings" at Jersey City's Mana Contemporary—with work that generally stays within the "standard" sizes of sixteen by twenty and twenty-two by twenty-eight inches. —JP

Music: "Third Piano Concerto and Symphonic Dances," by Sergei Rachmaninoff, with Daniil Trifonov, at Lincoln Center (November 24, 27, 28): The New York Philharmonic this week will wrap up a three-week exploration of the works of Sergei Rachmaninoff, offering two of the great warhorses of late-Romantic music. Daniil Trifonov, the immensely talented young piano superstar and Tchaikovsky Competition laureate, has served as docent in the celebrated piano concerti, and this week will take on the furious Third. Ludovic Morlot, a strong candidate to succeed Alan Gilbert as Music Director, leads the Philharmonic in the ever-popular Symphonic Dances. —ECS

From the archive: Coates contra mundum, by Anthony Daniels: On the occasion of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s winning the National Book Award, read Anthony Daniels’s review of Between the World and Me

From our latest issue: State of nature, by Dominic Green: On the revival of Britain’s nature-writing tradition.  


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In case you missed it

by Benjamin Riley

Posted: Nov 20, 2015 03:00 PM

Henri Rousseau, Tour Eiffel, 1898, Museum of Fine Arts Houston, via

Editor’s note: As much as we’d like to use this space to dilate on the fripperies of the art world (as we did last week), it seems inappropriate to discuss anything other than the disgusting acts of violence perpetrated last week in Paris. And so in this edition of Friday links we’ll present various viewpoints on what transpired and what’s to be done.

Recent links of note:

How many more people have to die before we stop appeasing Islamists? Why aren't we standing up to the enemy within?
Charles Moore, The Daily Telegraph
Writing the Monday following the Paris attacks, Charles Moore elucidates clearly the failings of the West in its response to Islamism, which he defines as “a highly political version of Islam which cleverly mixes the modern blogosphere world of grievance and conspiracy theory with the sanctity of ancient texts ill-understood but passionately invoked.” The rise of Islamism is no secret to the enlightened minds of the West and yet nothing has been done to stop the ever more-realized threat. Moore writes, “no civilization can survive without the means of defending itself.” As the West refuses to do so, we can only expect more of the same.

A Pearl Harbor à la Française
Pascal Bruckner, City Journal
In City Journal, Pascal Bruckner, the French public intellectual writes warily of the “blue-eyed emirs,” those who have naturalized into European countries and managed to maintain their radical, exceedingly dangerous beliefs. At heart, they cannot “tolerate the West,” for that would be to “come to terms with . . . reason, free thought, and individualism.” So “what, then is to be done?,” Bruckner asks. His stirring words point to a way forward. “We change nothing of our habits . . . We neutralize the militants . . . unceremoniously expel questionable imams and preachers of hatred, and close Salafist mosques. . . . We must spread terror in the fiefdom of terrorists.” Quite right. 

The Vicar of Baghdad: 'I've looked through the Quran trying to find forgiveness . . . there isn't any.'
Mary Wakefield, The Spectator
The Spectator presents a conversation with Matthew White, known as the Vicar of Baghdad, a man who once presided over a congregation of 6,000 and now cannot return to Baghdad over safety fears. ISIS has decimated his flock, killing over a thousand of them. The rest have fled. One would think a man of the church would fall in line with the current liberal consensus; namely that the phenomenon of ISIS is bolstered by misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the Quran. Not White. “The trouble is lack of forgiveness in Islam. . . . This makes it very difficult to talk to ISIS because they can show you quite clearly that it is what Allah wants.” To combat Islamism we must understand it; men like White should be listened to, not marginalized and maligned because their views don’t agree with soft liberal orthodoxy. We ignore him at our own risk.

The Islamist Tantrum
Bret Stephens, The Wall Street Journal 
Writing in Monday’s WSJ, Bret Stephens connects the outburst of violent Islamism in Paris with the collegiate disturbances making headlines on our shores. Though differing in magnitude, all bear the mark of the “sanctified tantrum—the political and religious furies we dare not name or shame, much less confront.” It is not that we do not recognize the threat of radical Islamism; just that we indulge it. The Paris attacks, and those to come, are the result of “Europe [deciding] to make a fetish of its tolerance for intolerance and allow the religious distempers of its Islamists communities to fester over many years.”

From our pages:

Free speech on campus
Has the First Amendment completely disappeared from college campuses?


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Professor Obama explains his strategy

by James Bowman

Posted: Nov 19, 2015 11:28 AM

Professor Obama, via

Commenting on President Obama’s press conference in Turkey on Monday, Jonathan S. Tobin of Commentary wrote this:

For all of his manifold talents, President Obama’s chief shortcoming remains a dogged refusal to ever consider the possibility that he might be mistaken. To an objective observer, the course of the war in Iraq and Syria, as well as the spread of Islamist terror on his watch, would at the very least call into question the President’s strategy. Yet everything that has happened in the last seven years has only served to deepen Obama’s conviction that he was right about everything in the first place. As much as it is hard for [George W.] Bush to shake the reputation of a failed president, he had one characteristic that Obama lacks: the ability to admit error and change his mind to adapt to circumstances.

Well, that’s what we get for having elected an ideologue to the presidency. The Left likes to claim that conservatives are prisoners of some ideology of their own, but the test is this inability to change one’s mind no matter how circumstances change, no matter how overwhelming the evidence that one has been mistaken. The pragmatist (Mr. Tobin’s example is President Bush’s Iraq Surge of 2007) can do it; the ideologue cannot.

And what’s the reason? The ideologue can’t change his mind about anything because to do so he would have to change his mind about everything. His ideology has given him a handy intellectual tool for connecting all his discrete beliefs about the world together into a comprehensive world-view that identifies him with others holding the same viewpoint and calling themselves “progressives.” But being progressive is more an identity than it is a system of beliefs. It is who you are, not just what you think. Therefore, for a progressive ideologue to change any part of his beliefs would be to call into question all the rest, along with his sense of self, his very identity, which is intimately bound up with his progressivism.

Any amount of intellectual contortionism must be preferable to that, as we can tell from the particular strand of the progressive ideology that was called into service in response to last Friday’s massacre in Paris. I refer to the pacifist strand. The progressive must suppose that mass murderers in the cause of an ideology of their own have been au fond provoked to such wicked deeds by something their victims or those near and dear to them have done to the murderers, or to those near and dear to them. In other words, it’s all part of a “cycle of violence” which can only be escaped—so the pacifist ideology would tell us—by the victims’ or their survivors’ refusing to perpetuate it by retaliating.

Of course, those without any ideological blinders on will see at once that this theory of the cycle of violence doesn’t work in reality. Not even close. Whether we retaliate, as we did under President Bush, or we don’t retaliate, as we are doing under President Obama, the terrorists go on hitting us just the same. Again and again. At least if we retaliate, common sense tells us, there will be that many fewer jihadis to worry about. But no, our ideologically sophisticated president, now lecturing us from the Philippines, tells us that “I cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for ISIL” than “some of the rhetoric” of his get-tough Republican critics.

Gosh! After so many terrorist atrocities in the last 20 years, wouldn’t you just hate to see what ISIL does if it gets really mad at us? Better to accept our lumps, it seems, and trust in his long term “strategy” (whatever that is) to knock off the bad guys for us. Or perhaps to turn them into good guys. I like to think that even 15 or 20 years ago—or after 9/11—Mr. Obama would have been laughed to scorn for such comments by a media culture not yet so completely politicized as it has since become. But now the ideologues hold the whip hand, in the media as in academia and elsewhere, and we can be pretty sure they’re never, ever going to be able to recognize, let alone to acknowledge and seek to correct, their own manifest mistakes.


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Substantially good

by Adam Schwartzman

Posted: Nov 18, 2015 01:28 PM

A half century after publication, John Williams’ Stoner has been reissued in hardback by the New York Review of Books, accompanied by some 20 pages of correspondence between the author and his agent Marie Rodell.1 That Stoner endures at all, let alone in a fiftieth anniversary edition, is somewhat remarkable. The novel struggled to find a publisher, had an unimpressive initial run of 2,000 copies, and quickly receded from public view. Stoner remained largely unnoticed until it was reissued in paperback in 2003, also by NYRB. A French translation by Anna Gavalda gained enormous popularity across Europe, leading the novel to become a bestseller for the first time in its 40 year history.

Now Stoner has become a critical darling, praised by the likes of Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan. If the novel has gone under-appreciated for most of its existence—and it has—one must also recognize the tremendous corrective effort taking place. Bret Easton Ellis referred to Stoner as “one of the great unheralded 20th-century novels.” Emma Straub called it “the most beautiful book in the world.” In perhaps the most effusive case, Morris Dickstein at The New York Times wrote, “‘Stoner’ is something rarer than a great novel—it is a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving that it takes your breath away.” The list goes on.

Stoner tells the story of William Stoner, born 1891 in rural Missouri. He enters the University of Missouri in 1910, quickly changes his course of study from agriculture to literature, and stays at the university as an assistant professor until his death in 1956. At home he is besieged by a disastrous marriage to the frigid, manipulative Edith; at the university he faces bitter rivalry with not one, but two sinister hunchbacks. Stoner’s life is one of near-constant hardship, which he navigates with a quiet stoicism that defines both character and novel. In the school of poor metaphor, William Stoner is Rocky Balboa, taking blow after blow but just trying to go the distance.

In the novel’s opening lines, we learn of the protagonist’s ultimate fate:

Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.

The message is clear: William Stoner will achieve little and be remembered less. More than simply bleak, this prognosis has a practical effect on the reader. Our foreknowledge amplifies the hills and valleys of Stoner’s life, imbuing the story with a lingering profundity that bleeds through Williams’ economical prose. This persistent, subtle depth is largely why the novel succeeds. Williams need not reach for meaning—and indeed he categorically refuses to be sentimental—because his characters and their interactions speak for themselves.

Nor does the author make William Stoner a moral center. There is no good versus evil in Stoner, only flaws, vulnerabilities, and the characters who possess them. Stoner’s wife is no monster, only an incognizant woman marred by a repressive childhood (the description of Edith’s upbringing is one of the novel’s high points, including, among other gems: “her moral training, both at the schools she attended and at home, was negative in nature, prohibitive in intent, and almost entirely sexual”). When Stoner does find love, it is not in reconciliation with his wife, but in an intense but fleeting affair with a graduate student. There is no great catharsis in Stoner’s life, nor in his relationships. There are only attempts at understanding, with varying degrees of success.

With respect to Mr. Dickstein, Stoner is not a perfect novel. Up through much of the story’s first half, the protagonist is so passive as to be lackluster. Like Pip Pirrup in Great Expectations, Stoner is both led to water and made to drink (incidentally, Edith shares a number of less-desirable traits with Estella and Miss Havisham both).

More glaringly, the author has evident difficulty trusting his readership, particularly in his use of symbol and metaphor. In a phrase, Williams is heavy-handed. Stoner’s adversaries are marked by physical deformity. His affair is consummated not just with any woman, but a young, beautiful genius so docile and sympathetic that she approaches the unbelievable.

Then there is the case of Dave Masters and Gordon Finch, Stoner’s fellow graduate students. At the outbreak of World War I, Finch and Masters enlist, while Stoner defers to continue his studies. Shortly thereafter, Stoner learns of their fates. Dave Masters, among the first Americans to see action, is killed almost immediately in France. Gordon Finch, whose service takes him to New York, is able to continue his education at Columbia University, where he receives his degree the very same week as Stoner (recall that Stoner attends the University of Missouri at Columbia). The dichotomy between Finch and Masters is captivating, particularly in showing what might have been had Stoner enlisted, but it is so perfectly neat that it cannot reflect real life. Williams is more than a smart writer, he is a deliberate one. In this case, he is deliberate to the point of distraction.

Stoner is a captivating and well-told story, rich in human struggle and persistence. It is deserving of all but the most hyperbolic praise (one wonders what a “perfect novel” might look like, and if such a thing could exist). The republished edition’s inclusion of correspondence between author and agent is enlightening.  We learn, for instance, of extensive rewrites to the novel’s first third, perhaps an explanation of Stoner’s passivity in those pages. It also becomes clear that Williams had terrible taste in titles (he first presented “A Flaw of Light,” then lobbied for “The Matter of Love,” and confessed “everything I come up with sounds like a soap opera”). When John Williams wrote to Marie Rodell in June 1963, “The only thing I’m sure of is that it’s a good novel; in time it may even be thought of as a substantially good one,” he couldn’t have known how right he was. Some fifty years later, Stoner is heralded by many as a masterpiece, and rightfully so. 

1 Stoner, John Williams; New York Review Books Classics, 336 pages, $19.95.



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The Critic's Notebook for November 16, 2015

by Benjamin Riley

Posted: Nov 17, 2015 10:25 AM

Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988), The Whole, 1984/Photo: Liz Ligon


Sign up to receive “Critic's Notebook” in your inbox every week—it only takes a few seconds and it's completely free! “Critic's Notebook” is a weekly preview of the best to read, see, and hear in New York and beyond, compiled by the editors of The New Criterion.


This week: Berlin and Brooklyn, Houellebecq and Hubris.

FictionSubmission, by Michel Houellebecq, translated by Lorin Stein (Farrar, Straus & Giroux): With all eyes on Paris following the almost unspeakably horrific events of Friday night, Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Submission, seems to be the book of the day. Set in a dystopian near-future (the not-so-far year 2022), the book details a bleak Parisian scene in which the city and France as a whole have been quietly Islamized, with a “Muslim Fraternity” candidate acceding to the highest office. The universities close for a short period of time after the election and then reopen with a new mandate for professors. They are either to accept early retirement or convert to Islam. The latter choice also comes with an attendant tripling of salary, funded by the Gulf States. Thusly France slides into a sort of soft Islamism: alcohol officially prohibited but not unavailable and polygamy encouraged and practiced widely. Writing in our February 2015 issue on the book (then only available in French), Anthony Daniels called it “far from a crude anti-Islamic polemic. . . . It is rather a meditation . . . on the state of Western civilization and what makes that civilization vulnerable to attack from so intellectually nugatory a force as Islamism, which, by all reasonable standards, has nothing of any value whatever to say to the inhabitants of the twenty-first century.” —BR

Nonfiction: Hubris: The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century, by Alistair Horne (Harper): Anyone that’s read Greek mythology can guess how things will end for those impetuous enough to try to make a mockery of the gods. In Rhetoric, Aristotle defined the human flaw of Hubris as “doing and saying things that cause shame to the victim . . . simply for the pleasure of it.” More than two millennia later, nothing has changed. In Alistair Horne’s newest work (his twenty-fifth to date), he looks at six different battles of the twentieth century, arguing that they are all connected by displays of extreme hubris on one side. One leader’s hubris in battle can have devastating effects, and Horne believes that—even though warfare has changed immensely over the past 100 years—learning from these human faults can help military leaders today. —RH

Poetry: The Kingfisher, by Amy Clampitt (Knopf): If I ever want to ignore my responsibilities for an afternoon, I will indulge in Amy Clampitt's The Kingfisher and soon find myself plopped right in the middle of some clandestine paradise awash with honeyed light or Clampitt's favorite sundews. The poet's appreciation for being deluged in a "wetfoot understory" parallels the same experience one might have while reading The Kingfisher. To use Clampitt's words, "A step/ down and you're into it; a/ wilderness swallows you up." But Clampitt's wilderness isn't as terrifying or untamed as much as it is wildly mystic and pristine. Sagacious as her observations may be, her perception of natural landscapes beyond their initial impressions is vivid, elegant, and precise. In one piece, Clampitt meditates on the subject of her poem, referring to them as "an intellect engaged in the hazardous redefinition of structures no one has yet looked at." Clampitt's ardor for the world around her mimics the reader's adoration for her work as a poet—except in Clampitt's case, she redefines structures we have looked at, just through language that is as authentic as it is rapturous. Her attention to color, lighting, vegetation, climate, and any other natural factors is what bolsters the backdrop of her work and what subsequently provides insight into the natural world as it is depicted through her use of inventive, refreshing language. It's no new concept that poets are often attracted to philosophy and beauty, but rarely do you find one who balances both as effortlessly as Clampitt does in this first book of poetry. If the way Clampitt sees the world is representative of how we might see her work, then her poems are timeless, undoubtedly "unfogged by mere affect"; yet existing as "the perishing residue of pure sensation." —ID

Art: "Isamu Noguchi at Brooklyn Botanic Garden” (Through December 13): For Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988), the setting of a sculpture could be as important as the work itself. “If sculpture is the rock,” he once wrote, “it is also the space between rocks and between the rock and a man, and the communication and contemplation between.” Through December 13, Dakin Hart, the senior curator at The Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, tests the "communication and contemplation" of Noguchi sculpture by placing eighteen of his works around the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Hiding might be more like it, since most of these sculptures are nestled within the garden's natural settings, without signage and with only perfunctory directions. Yet far from frustrating, the experience of uncovering them feels entirely appropriate for this artist who, in the words of his biographer Hayden Hererra,“sought and found, by making sculpture, a way to embed himself in the earth, in nature, in the world.” —JP

Music: The Berliner Philharmoniker at Carnegie Hall (November 17–21): If you're looking for a Beethoven binge, it doesn't get much better than this coming week. The Berlin Philharmonic will occupy Carnegie Hall for a cycle of the complete Beethoven symphonies, along with some of the notable orchestral overtures. Sir Simon Rattle, widely celebrated for his cycle of Beethoven recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic, leads this legendary orchestra in one of the final installments of his fifteen-year tenure at its helm. The survey begins Tuesday night, with the First Symphony and the thrilling "Eroica." —ECS

From the archive: On the frontlines of free speech, by David Pryce-Jones: On “Fatwa or free speech?,” a conference in Denmark.

From our latest issue: New York chronicle, by Jay Nordlinger: On “The Art of the Score,” Verdi’s Otello, Puccini’s Turandot, and more. 


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Bronfman embarks on a (Prokofiev) project

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: Nov 16, 2015 02:55 PM

Sergei Prokofiev, via

On Friday night, Yefim Bronfman, the Russian-born pianist, gave a recital in Zankel Hall. His program was all-Prokofiev—the first four piano sonatas by that composer. He will play all of them this season at Carnegie Hall (of which Zankel is a constituent).

How many piano sonatas by Prokofiev are there? Well, it depends on how you count—but the consensus is nine.

Bronfman is hailed as a Prokofiev exponent, and that he is. Not long ago, he played two Bartók concertos here in New York with the London Symphony Orchestra. PR hailed him as a Bartók exponent. That he is, too.

The truth is, he’s a pianist, and a musician: he has no specialty. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him hailed as a Mozart exponent, but one of the best performances of a Mozart concerto I’ve ever heard in my life was supplied by Yefim Bronfman. (The concerto was the C-minor.)

Frankly, I’d like to hear him play an all-Bach recital. Has he ever?

Beginning at the beginning, Bronfman opened his recital on Friday night with Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 1. The composer wrote it at age eighteen. Would it be programmed today if someone were not embarked on a project of completeness? Probably not.

The same is true of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 3. Sonatas Nos. 2 and 4, by contrast, are not strangers.

Incidentally, Prokofiev’s first piano sonata is his Op. 1. Do you know the Mills Brothers song “Opus One”? “Oh, baby, I’m a-rackin’ my brain, to think of a name, to give to this tune, so Perry can croon. And maybe ol’ Bing will give it a fling, and that’ll start everyone hummin’ the thing.”

The Piano Sonata No. 1 is in one movement. At its outset, Bronfman was bear-like and impetuous. Later, he was somewhat tight and bull-like. He could have stood a greater sense of rhapsody.

But he was still Bronfman—and I hold him to a very high standard (as he holds himself).

Returning to the stage for the Piano Sonata No. 2, he sat down and pounced. He did this all evening long. He wasted no time. His bottom hit the chair and he was off. All-business.

He can be that way in his playing, too: all-business. He can put his head down (metaphorically) and bull straight ahead, and not necessarily musically. The conductor James Levine can do this too. So can another conductor, Valery Gergiev. And Bronfman did some of this bull-like, somewhat heedless playing in the first movement of the Second Sonata.

The next movement, the Scherzo, is famous on its own. Pianists have been known to use it as an encore (including Bronfman, if I remember correctly). It’s marked “Scherzo: Allegro marcato.” I would say that Bronfman’s playing was not so much marcato as pesante: heavy. Very, very heavy. In his conception, this movement is lead-footed and stubborn. In mine, it’s more impish and biting.

But maybe Bronfman is right. He thinks a lot about these things, and has been superbly taught.

The final movement, Vivace, he played with brutality—musical brutality. That was excellent, but his playing was a bit sloppy, especially by his standards.

And I will give you a weird aside. There is a secondary theme in this movement—slow—and it reminds me of something written later: the famous quintet that ends Barber’s opera Vanessa (“To leave, to break”).

Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 3, like his first sonata, is in one movement. And I will make just two points about Bronfman’s playing of it—a particular point and a general one. The particular point is this: There are repeated notes to play in this work, and it’s hard to play those without getting tight. Bronfman met this challenge.

More generally, he demonstrated sure understanding of the work: its structure, its pace, its arc. This was especially true of slower sections. He played the sonata like a composer, if I may. In his hands, it was beautiful, suspenseful, and intelligent.

Never did Bronfman play better on this evening than in this work.

Okay, how about the Sonata No. 4? I have heard him play this piece more freely, more wackily—with greater delight. The music was a tad sober, in my judgment. But, to repeat something I said earlier, he was still Bronfman.

His first encore was Chopin. Should he have departed from the composer of the evening? In any case, he did. He played the Etude in F major, Op. 10, No. 8. It was a little dry, and it was also lightly pedaled—unusually lightly pedaled. I appreciated this. It was a feat.

Bronfman’s second and final encore was a slow beauty, the Romanze from Schumann’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien, which we sometimes know in English as “Carnival Jest from Vienna.” Bronfman played this with true maturity and artistry.

I was hoping for a different encore: the Precipitato from Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7. Like other pianists, Bronfman has turned this movement into an encore. Let me quote from a review I wrote in 2007, please;

Needless to say, the crowd at Carnegie Hall wanted encores, and Mr. Bronfman first obliged with more Schumann: two excerpts from “Carnival Jest from Vienna.” Then he ended the evening with the last movement of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7—that toccata, marked Precipitato.

Ladies and gentlemen, it was stupendous. It was wild, mesmerizing, and flooring. Mr. Bronfman would probably not have played it this way—so wildly, so fast, with so much abandon – if he had been concluding the complete sonata (i.e., if he had been playing the Precipitato “in context”). Neither would he have played it this way, probably, if he had been recording the work in a studio. But as the final encore of a Carnegie Hall evening—perfect. Mr. Bronfman let it all hang out (though with musical control). We who heard it will not soon forget it.

And as you see, I haven’t. 


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Kimball on the rise of the "crybully"

by Benjamin Riley

Posted: Nov 15, 2015 06:12 PM

Light and truth: two things one seems to find very litte of at Yale these days

It's no secret that we at The New Criterion follow the continuing degradation of higher education in America with a close eye. Just this season we've had occasion to comment on attacks on free speech and good sense at Williams and Yale. Since then, our editor, the indefatigable Roger Kimball, has sought to explain the the ways that students have fought against our foundational values in various outlets. The phenomenon of the aggrieved student may be difficult for our readers to understand (so ridiculous it all seems), but fear not, an explanation is forthcoming. In this weekend's Wall Street Journal, and later picked up by The Drudge Report, Kimball identifies and seeks to elucidate the evolution of the "crybully, who has weaponized his coveted status as a victim." We offer below a brief selection from the piece but readers should head straight to the Wall Street Journal's website to read a masterful evaluation of the academy's latest ills.

The truth is that American universities are among the safest and most coddled environments ever devised by man. The idea that one should attend college to be protected from ideas one might find controversial or offensive could only occur to someone who had jettisoned any hope of acquiring an education. Many commentators have been warning about a “higher education bubble.” They have focused mostly on the unsustainable costs of college, but the spectacle of timid moral self-indulgence also deserves a place on the bill of indictment.


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In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil sang of "arms and a man" (Arma virumque cano). Month in and month out, The New Criterion expounds with great clarity and wit on the art, culture, and political controversies of our times. With postings of reviews, essays, links, recs, and news, Armavirumque seeks to continue this mission in accordance with the timetable of the digital age.


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